The certainty of political uncertainty

Posted: Jan 13, 2008 12:00 AM
The certainty of political uncertainty

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- Not much is certain in politics. Not exit polls, forecasts or punditry. Yet one thing that is for certain, coming out of New Hampshire, is that the 2008 presidential race remains very much up in the air.

“Look at what has happened so far," says George F. Will, the conservative columnist. "The very idea that money is all-powerful was struck down with Romney in Iowa and New Hampshire; the idea that organization is all-powerful was struck down by Huckabee.

"And with the Democrats we learned that the Clintons can top momentum in just about eight hours," he added. “So, in other words, just about anything can and will happen.”

Will's comments speak to not just the results in New Hampshire -- where the Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton race came to a stunning (mostly to pundits) conclusion -- but, in a larger sense, to the entire field of presidential candidates. No clear winners have attached themselves to either party’s base.

And that just may be a good thing.

“Change” was the overriding theme in the Granite State. That is, until it came to the winners and losers making their primary-night speeches. From second-placers Mitt Romney and Obama to first-placers John McCain and Clinton, they all avoided using that much-hyped word.

That is probably a good thing, too. At some point -- and the earlier, the better -- this race must become about something.

Political science professor Matt Lebo says to look for more scrutiny on the substance of Obama’s credentials -- especially from the Clintons. “You have already seen that begin with Bill Clinton’s attacks here in New Hampshire right before election night,” he says.

Apparently, those attacks worked. So did emotion: Hillary showed some and, based on exit polls, women in her age-range bought it, in large part because they saw it as a reflection of themselves.

Hillary’s “experience” tag line may also resurrect itself. On New Hampshire’s primary day, the Iranians were reported to have played a dangerous cat-and-mouse game with the U.S. Navy; Clinton’s vote on Iraq may have been on some voters’ minds, providing one more push forward for the New York senator.

Many political soothsayers moan that the Republican Party is in disarray, but why don’t they consider that state of uncertainty a good thing for the GOP?

Many people apply a waiting-for-Reagan standard to each Republican candidate. But they have made Reagan too much of a myth for any candidate to reflect. None of the candidates is perfect. Neither was Reagan.

For now, the fight among Democrats largely is centered on front-runners Clinton and Obama; John Edwards is waiting in the wings, hoping he can win by default.

Among Republicans, Mike Huckabee won big in Iowa, Romney won small in Wyoming, but McCain scored the moral victory with his win in New Hampshire.

Another way to look at it: Romney lost two big races on which he staked a lot of money and organization; McCain could not pull out even a third place in Iowa; and Huckabee is just a one-hit wonder -- the perspective depends on the amount of cynicism you wish to employ.

Then there is the unknown variable of Rudy Giuliani. His strategy of waiting till Feb. 5’s Super-duper Tuesday is called unproven and risky but, frankly, it really is his only shot. And who knows, it may just work.

The promise of Fred Thompson has not materialized so far. But if his pitch for South Carolina and all things Dixie and Western works, well, he will rewrite political history.

Ron Paul’s presence in New Hampshire was interesting, but not politically important. Said one woman who drove up from Kentucky: “I am here for the party” -- the fun kind, not the political kind. That pretty much explains Ron Paul.

Being undecided walking into the voting booth was the norm in New Hampshire, not the exception. If that trend persists nationally, then there may not be any clear winner for either party at the end of primary season.

That would make 2008 the summer of the brokered conventions.